Film Review: Mister 880 (dir by Edmund Goulding)


First released in 1950, Mister 880 is a wonderful surprise.

The film opens like a typical 50s crime drama.  We’re told that counterfeiting is a serious crime and that the dedicated agents of the Secret Service are working very hard to try to wipe out the scourge of fake money. We’re also told that Mister 880 is based on a true story and that it was produced with the full cooperation of the U.S. Treasury Department.  As a result, modern viewers will probably be expecting Mister 880 to be a work of pro-government propaganda, where wholesome treasury agents track down and stop soulless thieves.  Instead, Mister 880 turns out to be a wonderfully charming portrait of a criminal who doesn’t mean to cause anyone any harm.

Burt Lancaster stars as Steve Buchanan, a Treasury agent who is well-known for never letting a case go.  He’s developed a personal obsession with tracking down a counterfeiter who, for the last ten years, has been passing phony one dollar bills around a certain New York neighborhood.  The Treasury Department has named him Mister 880.  Mister 880 is definitely an amateur.  The money that he prints is sloppy.  At the same time, he also only prints one dollar bills and it appears that he only does so on occasion.  Just as no one can figure out his identity, everyone is also baffled by his motivation.  If he was looking to get rich through printing his own money, he would surely print more than just  a bunch of sloppy one dollar bills.

Investigating the neighborhood that he believes to be Mister 880’s base of operations, Buchanan meets and falls in love with Ann Winslow (Dorothy McGuire).  He also happens to meet Ann’s neighbor, Skipper Miller (Edmund Gwenn).  Skipper is an elderly man, a Navy veteran who lives with a dog and who says that he is financially supported by a rich cousin who nobody has ever met.  Skipper is a junk dealer and he’s a genuinely nice man.  Everyone in the neighborhood, including Ann, loves Skipper.  Buchanan soon comes to like the old eccentric as well.

Of course, as you’ve probably already guessed, Skipper is the counterfeiter.  He is Mister 880.  He doesn’t mean to cause any harm, of course.  He only prints money when he absolutely needs to and he always makes sure to not use too much of it.  He doesn’t want to steal from anyone.  He’s just an elderly man who wants to live out his days in peace and who doesn’t want to be a bother to anyone.

When Buchanan discovers the truth about Skipper, he’s faced with a dilemma.  Skipper is hardly a master criminal but Buchanan has sworn an oath and he has a job to do.  Not making things any simpler is that Skipper doesn’t deny what he’s done and he also says that he’ll plead guilty to his crime because …. well, he is guilty.  Skipper’s not a liar, despite the fake money.  Both Buchanan and Ann know that Skipper won’t survive spending years behind bars.  What do you do with a man who has broken the law but who, at heart, is not really a criminal?  Can a crime be forgiven just because the man who committed it is really, really likable?

Mister 880 is a sweet-natured comedy, one that doesn’t necessarily argue that Skipper’s crime should have been forgiven but which, at the same time, does make the case that not all law-breakers are created equal.  Gwenn, who is best-known for playing Santa Claus in the original Miracle on 34th Street, gives a wonderful performance as Skipper.  It’s hard not to love Skipper.  It’s not just that Skipper doesn’t make any excuses for being a counterfeiter.  And it’s not just that Skipper is an eccentric who loves his dog and has his own unique way of looking at the world.  It’s that Skipper is just a genuinely kind man.  He’s someone who would rather go to prison than be too much of a burden to the people who he cares about.  He’s the sweetest criminal you could ever hope to meet.

Gwenn was rightfully nominated for an Academy Award for his work in this film.  Not nominated but equally strong were Burt Lancaster and Dorothy McGuire.  Even though they don’t get any big, show-stopping moments like Gwenn does, both Lancaster and McGuire bring their characters to wonderful life and both do a great job of capturing their own mixed feelings about what should be done about Skipper.  Lancaster, in particular, is convincing as the by-the-book agent who is torn between his professional obligations and his feelings for both Ann and Skipper.

Mister 880 is one of my favorite movies, a wonderfully and unexpectedly good-hearted film about a real-life criminal who wasn’t the bad of a guy.  Emerich Juenetter, the real-life counterfeiter who served as the model for Skipper, reportedly made more money from the release of this film than he ever did over the course of his counterfeiting career.  After watching Mister 880, it’s hard not to feel that he earned every cent of it.

Horror Film Review: The Walking Dead (dir by Michael Curtiz)


In this 1936 film (which has absolutely no relation to the AMC zombie show), Boris Karloff plays John Ellman.  John Ellman is perhaps one of the unluckiest guys ever.  Seriously check this out:

John Ellman was once an acclaimed concert pianist.  However, he was wrongly convicted of killing his wife and spent ten years in prison.  Now that he’s finally been paroled, he can’t get anyone to hire him.  Meanwhile, the judge who originally sent him to prison is in the news for having defied the mob and sentenced a well-known gangster to prison.  The mob is out for revenge but, rather than take the fall themselves, they’d rather frame a patsy.  And who could be a better patsy than a man who everyone already knows has a grudge against the judge?

Nolan (Ricardo Cortez), a crooked lawyer, arranges for Ellman to be given a job.  Ellman is told that he simply has to spy on the judge for a few nights to determine whether the judge is having an extramarital affair.  Ellman agrees and soon finds himself being set up.  The gangsters kill the judge and plant the body in Ellman’s car.  Ellman is arrested and sentenced to die.  It doesn’t matter that there are witnesses who know that Ellman’s innocent.  No one is willing to cross the mafia.

Ellman is convicted and promptly executed but his story isn’t over.  A scientist named Dr. Beaumont (Edmund Gwenn, who later played the man who might be Santa Claus in Miracle on 34th Street) knows that Ellman is innocent.  He takes Ellman’s body and, through an artificial heart and a bunch of other science-y things, he manages to revive Ellman.  John Ellman lives again!  Of course, he’s a bit of a zombie now and he doesn’t have any memory of his former life.  And yet, he instinctively knows who set him up to be executed and he sets out for revenge.

What’s interesting is that Ellman doesn’t kill anyone.  Even after he’s revived and presumably has no concept of right and wrong, John Ellman remains a rather passive zombie.  For the most part, the racketeers die because of how they react to the sight of the previously dead Ellman coming towards them.  For that matter, Beaumont isn’t the typical mad scientist that you might expect to turn up in a film like this.  He’s a benevolent man who was simply doing what he thought was the right thing.  Though the film ends with a warning about playing God, one can’t hep but get the feeling that, unlike Frankenstein, the film is overall very supportive of the idea of reviving the dead.

Directed by Michael Curtiz (who also did Casablanca, Mildred Pierce, The Adventures of Robin Hood, and countless other classic films), The Walking Dead is a combination horror/gangster film.  The film’s plot is a bit too convoluted for its own good but, overall, The Walking Dead works because of Boris Karloff’s performance.  He’s poignantly pathetic as the living John Ellman and then rather chilling as the vengeance-driven, recently revived Ellman.  The film’s most effective scenes are the ones where he just stares at his enemies, fixing them with a gaze that takes no prisoners and offers no hope.  It’s a great performance that elevates an otherwise uneven film.

Film Review: Pride and Prejudice (dir by Robert Z. Leonard)


On this date, in 1813, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice was first published.  The book was published Thomas Egerton, who bought the rights for £110.  Apparently, Austen didn’t expect the book to become the success that it did.  As a result, she ultimately only made  £140 off of the book.  (Egerton made considerably more.)  When the book was originally published, Austen’s name was nowhere to be found on the manuscript.  Instead, it was credited to “the author of Sense and Sensibility.”

(When Sense and Sensibility was originally released, it was simply credited to “A Lady.”)

The rest, of course, is history.  205 years after it was first published, Pride and Prejudice remains one of the most popular and influential novels ever written.  Every year, new readers discover and fall in love with the story of outspoken Elizabeth Bennet, the proud Mr. Darcy, the pompous Mr. Collins, and the rather sleazy George Wickham.  There have been countless film and television adaptations.  My personal favorite is Joe Wright’s 2005 version, with Keira Knightley as Elizabeth.  My least favorite would have to be Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.

The very first film adaptation of Pride and Prejudice was released in 1940.  Originally, the movie was envisioned as being a George Cukor film that would star Norma Shearer and Clark Gable.  However, the film’s production was put on hold after the death of Shearer’s husband, the legendary Irving Thalberg.  When the film finally resumed pre-production in 1939, Gable was now busy with Gone With The Wind.  Cast in his place was Robert Donat (who, interestingly enough, would have played Rhett Butler if Gable had refused the role).  With the film originally meant to be filmed in Europe, the outbreak of World War II led to yet another delay.  By the time production resumed, Cukor had been replaced by Robert Z. Leonard and Norma Shearer had also left the project.  With Gone With The Wind breaking box office records, MGM came up with the idea of once again casting Vivien Leigh opposite of Clark Gable.  However, Gable eventually left the film and Laurence Olivier, looking for a chance to act opposite Leigh, agreed to play Darcy.  However, the studio worried that casting Olivier and Leigh opposite each other would lead to negative stories about the two of them having an affair despite both being married to other people.  So, Leigh was removed from the project and Greer Garson was cast.  Olivier was so annoyed with the decision that, after Pride and Prejudice, it would be eleven years before he would work with another American studio.

Despite all of the drama behind-the-scenes, MGM’s version of Pride and Prejudice is a thoroughly delightful film, one full of charming performances and witty lines.  Though she was 36 when she made Pride and Prejudice, Garson is still the perfect Elizabeth, giving a lively and intelligent performance that stands in stark contrast to the somewhat staid films that she was making at the same time with Walter Pidgeon.  As for Olivier, from the first minute he appears, he simply is Darcy.  That said, my favorite performance in the film was Edmund Gwenn’s.  Cast as Mr. Bennet,  Gwenn brought the same warmth and gentle humor to the role that he would later bring to Kris Kringle in Miracle on 34th Street.  I also liked the performances of Maureen O’Sullivan as Jane and Edward Ashley as disreputable Mr. Wickham.

Pride and Prejudice is not an exact adaptation.  For one thing, the movie takes place in the early Victoria era, supposedly because MGM wanted to cut costs by reusing some of the same costumes that were previously used in Gone With The Wind.  As well, Lady Catherine (Edna May Oliver) is no longer as evil as she was in the novel.  Finally, because the production code forbid ridicule of religion, the theological career of Mr. Collins (Melville Cooper) was considerably downplayed.  Not even Jane Austen (or, more specifically, the film’s screenwriter, Aldous Huxley) could defy the Code.

Seventy-eight years after it was first released, the 1940 version of Pride and Prejudice holds up surprisingly well.  It’s an enjoyable film and one that, despite a few plot changes, remains true to the spirit of Austen.

Halloween Havoc!: THEM! (Warner Brothers 1954)


cracked rear viewer

The iconic, bloodcurdling scream of little Sandy Descher heralds the arrival of THEM!, the first and best of the 50’s “Big Bug” atomic thrillers. Warner Brothers had one of their biggest hits of 1954 with this sci-fi shocker, putting it up there with Cukor’s A STAR IS BORN, Hitchcock’s DIAL M FOR MURDER, and Wellman’s THE HIGH AND THE MIGHTY as their highest-grossing films of the year. Not bad company for director Gordon Douglas , previously known for his work with Our Gang and Laurel & Hardy! THEM! was also Oscar nominated that year for its special effects (and should’ve been for Bronislaw Kaper’s terrific score).

The movie begins with the look and feel of a noir mystery courtesy of DP Sidney Hickox’s (DARK PASSAGE, THE BIG SLEEP  , WHITE HEAT) brooding shadows and sandstorm-battered landscape. New Mexico policemen Ben Peterson and Ed Blackburn come across a little girl wandering…

View original post 675 more words

Windmills of Your Mind: Alfred Hitchcock’s FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT (United Artists 1940)


cracked rear viewer

(When Maddy Loves Her Classic Films invited me to join in on the Alfred Hitchcock Blogathon, I jumped at the chance! I’ve just completed the Ball State/TCM 50 YEARS OF HITCHCOCK course, and have been knee-deep in his movies for a month now!)

Alfred Hitchcock’s second American film found the Master of Suspense back in the spy game with FORGEIGN CORRESPONDENT, this time with American star Joel McCrea caught up in those familiar “extraordinary circumstances” we’ve all come to love. Like REBECCA that same year, this film was nominated for Best Picture, an extraordinary circumstance indeed for a director new to these shores. Offhand I can only think of three other directors to hold that distinction – John Ford (also in ’40), Sam Wood (1942), and Francis Ford Coppola (1974). Good company, to say the least! (And please correct me if I’m wrong, any of you film fans out there).

Crime beat reporter…

View original post 644 more words

Cleaning Out the DVR Pt 11: Five from the Fifties


cracked rear viewer

dve1

The 1950’s were a time of change in movies. Television was providing stiff competition, and studios were willing to do anything to fend it off. The bigger budgeted movies tried 3D, Cinerama, wide-screen, and other optical tricks, while smaller films chose to cover unusual subject matter. The following five films represent a cross-section of nifty 50’s cinema:

dve2

BORDERLINE (Universal-International 1950; D: William A. Seiter)

BORDERLINE is a strange film, straddling the borderline (sorry) between romantic comedy and crime drama, resulting in a rather mediocre movie. Claire Trevor plays an LAPD cop assigned to Customs who’s sent to Mexico to get the goods on drug smuggler Pete Ritchey (Raymond Burr , being his usual malevolent self). She’s tripped up by Ritchey’s rival Johnny Macklin (Fred MacMurray , channeling his inner Walter Neff), and taken along as he tries to get the dope over the border. What she doesn’t know is he’s also…

View original post 628 more words

Here’s The Lux Radio Theater Version of Miracle on 34th Street!


I’ve spent so much time talking about how much I love It’s A Wonderful Life that I’m running the risk of overlooking my second favorite Christmas film of all time, 1947’s Miracle on 34th Street!

So, now that you’ve had a chance to enjoy the radio version of It’s A Wonderful Life and the behind-the-scenes documentary about the making of that classic film, why not sit back and listen to Lux Radio Theater’s production of Miracle on 34th Street!?

This was originally broadcast on December 22nd, 1947 and it features the cast from the film — Natalie Wood, Edmund Gwenn, John Payne, and Maureen O’Hara!

And remember — Santa Claus is real!  The U.S. Post Office says so!

 

 

 

Holiday Scenes That I Love: The U.S. Postal Service Proves The Existence of Santa Claus in Miracle on 34th Street!


Is there a Santa Claus?

Well, if you’ve ever seen the original 1947 Miracle on 34th Street than you already know the answer.  There is a Santa Claus and he looks exactly like Edmund Gwenn!

In this scene, Kris Kringle is on trial.  He swears that he is Santa Claus.  The prosecution claims that not only isn’t he Santa Claus but Santa doesn’t exist at all.  Fortunately, it’s the U.S. Post Service to the rescue!

Miracle on 34th Street is true Christmas classic and I hope you enjoy this holiday scene that I love.

(The remake with Richard Attenborough is also pretty good, as long as you can ignore the fact that Mara Wilson grew up to be one of the most annoying people on the planet.)

The Fabulous Forties #30: Cheers for Miss Bishop (dir by Tay Garnett)


cheers1

The 30th film in Mill Creek’s Fabulous Forties box set is the 1941 melodrama, Cheers For Miss Bishop.  Cheers For Miss Bishop is a bit like an Americanized version of Goodbye, Mr. Chips.  The story of Cheers For Miss Bishop, largely told via flashback, deals with a retired teacher who never quite got what she wanted out of life but still had a profound impact on all of her students.

The film opens with elderly Miss Bishop (played by Martha Scott) alone in her house.  The time is the 1930s and Miss Bishop is nearing retirement and somewhat bitter over ending her years having never married.  Prominent businessman Sam Peters (William Gargan) comes to the house and they start to recollect.  We flashback to the 1880s, when Miss Bishop was preparing to go to college and Sam was just the local grocery boy.  Sam was in love with Miss Bishop and, it’s suggested, that she loved him as well.  But she was determined to go to college whereas Sam was determined to go straight into business.

With the support of the kindly Prof. Corcoran (Edmund Gwenn, giving a performance that pretty much epitomizes what we mean when we call someone a kindly professor), Miss Bishop got a job teaching English at Midwestern College.  She was a popular teacher, one who not only inspired her students but who was also willing to stand up for them.  Eventually she met and became engaged to a local lawyer, Delbert Thompson (Don Douglas).  However, her heart was broken when Delbert ran off with another woman.  Years later, she fell in love with another professor (Sidney Blackmer), with the only problem being that he happened to be married.

But that’s not all that Miss Bishop had to deal with.  She also ended up adopting and raising Hope (Marsha Hunt) after Hope’s mother died in childbirth.  As she got older, she became frustrated when the younger college administrators demanded that she adapt with the times.  Miss Bishop also had to deal with her frequent romantic rival and cousin, the impulsive Amy (Mary Anderson).

Amy, I should mention, was my favorite character in Cheers For Miss Bishop, even though I don’t think that was the film’s intention.  Some of that is because Mary Anderson totally embraced the melodramatic potential of her character, often going totally over-the-top in a way that still seemed perfectly natural.  But there’s also the fact that Amy, as opposed to the often painfully inhibited Miss Bishop, had no boundaries.  She knew what she wanted and she went for it, without apology.  Amy may not have been a big role but she still dominated every scene that she appeared in.  Amy demanded attention and good for her!

That said, the title of the film is Cheers For Miss Bishop and not Cheers For Amy.  Ultimately, it’s a tribute to Miss Bishop and to teachers everywhere.  It’s an extremely predictable and sentimental film but it does what it does fairly well.  Occasionally, I got frustrated with Miss Bishop as a character (she was always so prim, proper, and respectable!  Plus, there’s a scene where she gives a student from North Carolina some trouble about his accent, saying that he needs to take her English class and, if you know how I feel about actors from up north trying too hard to sound like they’re from the South, you can imagine how I felt about that scene) but Martha Scott gave a good performance.  In the end, it’s a sweet little movie.  And you can watch it below!

Cleaning Out The DVR: Anthony Adverse (dir by Mervyn LeRoy)


AnthonyAdverse

Late last night, I continued to clean out my DVR by watching the 1936 film, Anthony Adverse.

I recorded Anthony Adverse off of TCM, where it was being shown as a part of that channel’s 31 Days of Oscars.  Anthony Adverse was aired because it was nominated for Best Picture of 1936.  That’s significant because, if not for that nomination, I doubt that anyone would ever have a reason to watch Anthony Adverse.  It’s certainly one of the more obscure best picture nominees.  Despite a prestigious cast and being directed by the respectable Mervyn LeRoy, Anthony Adverse only has a handful of reviews over at the imdb.  And most of those reviews were written by Oscar fanatics like me.

Anthony Adverse is an epic historical film, one that tells the story of Anthony Adverse (Frederic March).  Anthony is the illegitimate son of Denis Moore (Louis Hayward) and Maria (Anita Louise), the wife of evil Spanish nobleman, Don Luis (Claude Rains, convincing as a nobleman but not as someone from Spain).  Luis murdered Denis and Maria died giving birth so Luis abandons the baby at an Italian convent.  Anthony is raised by nuns and priests and then, 10 years later, is apprenticed to an English merchant named John Bonnyfeather (Edmund Gwenn).  Bonnyfeather just happens to be Anthony’s grandfather!  Though Luis told him that Anthony died as soon as he was born, Bonnyfeather quickly figures out that Anthony is his grandson.  However, Bonnyfeather doesn’t share that information with Anthony and instead, he gives Anthony the surname “Adverse.”

Bonnyfeather raises Anthony as his own son.  Anthony grows up to be Frederic March and ends up falling in love with and marrying the beautiful Angela (Olivia De Havilland).  However, Anthony is suddenly called away on business to Havana, Cuba.  He doesn’t even have a chance to tell Angela that he’s leaving.  He does leave her a note but it blows away.  Assuming that she’s been abandoned, Angela goes to France, becomes an opera singer, and is soon the mistress of Napoleon.

Meanwhile, in Cuba, Anthony becomes convinced that Angela has intentionally abandoned him.  Consumed by grief, he ends up running a slave trading post in Africa.  He takes one of the slaves, Neleta (Steffi Duna), as his mistress and becomes known for his cruelty.  However, he eventually meets Brother Francois (Pedro de Cordoba) and starts to reconsider his ways.

(The film’s treatment of the slave trade is …. well, it’s awkward to watch.  The film is undoubtedly critical of slavery but, at the same time, it’s hard not to notice that the only slave with a prominent part in the film is played by a Hungarian actress.  Anthony may eventually reject cruelty but it’s left ambiguous as to whether or not he rejects the slave trade as a business.  If Anthony Adverse were made today, one imagines that this section of the film would be handled much differently.)

Meanwhile, back in Europe, Bonnyfeather is dying and his housekeeper, Faith (Gale Sondergaard, who won the first ever Oscar awarded for Best Supporting Actress for her performance here), plots to claim his fortune.

After I watched the movie but before I started this review, I did some research and I discovered that Anthony Adverse was based on a 1,222-page best seller that came out in 1933.  I’m going to guess that the film’s long and ponderous story may have worked better on the page than it does on the screen.  As a film, Anthony Adverse clocks in at 141 minute and it feels even longer.  Despite the impressive cast, the film just never clicks.  It’s never that interesting.

At the same time, I can understand why it was nominated for best picture.  It’s a big movie, full of characters and extravagant sets and ornate costumes.  You can tell it was an expensive movie to make and there’s enough philosophical dialogue that you can pretend there’s something going on underneath the surface.  In the 1936, Anthony Adverse may have been quite impressive but seen today, it’s forgettable.

Anthony Adverse lost best picture to another overproduced extravaganza, The Great Ziegfield.  Personally, I would have given the award to the unnominated My Man Godfrey.